Connecting the unconnected

© Fraunhofer FOKUS

In January 2010, in order to connect rural areas lacking any IT infrastructure to the Internet, the Fraunhofer FOKUS, a branch of Germany’s largest research organisation, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, will breathe life into the FOKUS NET4DC. Together with partners from target regions, this international centre for information and communication technologies in developing countries will develop and make available tailor-made IT infrastructures and communication networks. The robust technology is being developed in Germany, and a first successful pilot project was recently initiated in the Southern Province of Zambia.

“The support of sustainable economic concepts is a global challenge. In our view, Fraunhofer FOKUS can contribute to this process by supplying mobile communication applications and helping to construct modern IT infrastructures in newly industrialising and developing countries”, emphasises Prof Dr Ulrich Buller, a board member of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. This should enable services such as eHealth, eLearning, eGovernment, eCommerce and eMicrobanking and with them, foster the integration of structurally weak regions into national and international markets. “By doing this, we can meet the expectations of social responsibility in the global context”, says Buller.

The main goal of FOKUS NET4DC is the implementation of modern information and communication technologies in the regions concerned to enable sustainable access to global communication networks. Prof Dr Radu Popescu-Zeletin, the director of Fraunhofer FOKUS and instigator and initiator of the centre’s FOKUS NET4DC explains, “We are accelerating research and development projects that factor in regional demands such as rough environmental conditions, irregular power supply, or the available radio wave spectrums.” The tailor-made communications and information solutions made in this way will be used by people who live in sparsely populated areas and speak very little, if any, English.

Connected via Mesh Net

Fraunhofer FOKUS is developing largely intermeshed radio networks for this purpose. Until now, these ad-hoc networks could only cover small areas. Robust technologies and easy operation are in the forefront of the developers’ minds. Single nodes – these are radio routers – on the network will automatically connect to neighbouring nodes. If the pathway becomes congested, or if one specific component fails, the system reacts independently – that is, without human input. Based on these technologies, the communication networks should be able to achieve the level of quality already familiar to Europeans.

In order to meet the technological as well as socio-economic challenges, alongside the IT know-how of Fraunhofer FOKUS, expertise from various fields of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is also needed. FOKUS NET4DC seeks to pool the relevant competencies: from appropriate materials and wireless communication infrastructures to alternative energy sources and new network technologies.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems, Fraunhofer FOKUS for short, is a Berlin-based research facility devoted to studying and developing communication and information technologies. In particular, it specialises in multi-domain networks and interoperable, user-centered solutions.

With more than twenty years’ experience, Fraunhofer FOKUS is an important IT research partner for the telecommunications sector, the automobile industry, media services, and public administrations. It frequently cooperates with governmental agencies and software companies to create needs-oriented eGovernment solutions and is a leading collaborator in projects funded by the European Union as well as by national-level sponsors.

The Fraunhofer experts will thus adopt a holistic approach and offer an open platform: on the ground, FOKUS NET4DC is looking for the cooperation of established partners such as organisations, research facilities and ventures – it is here that the expertise of various players comes together. “In addition, we will develop environments for testing and evaluation and make them available in order to tailor the capabilities and user-friendliness of the different technologies and services to the exact requirements of each target region”, emphasises Popescu-Zeletin.

Provision in Zambia

One of the first projects of FOKUS NET4DC is the connection of the Ubuntu Campus, a remote settlement near the village of Macha in the Southern Province of Zambia. Specialists used directional radio in order to connect this settlement to existing satellite technology in Macha. An affordable WLAN network for the primary school, a schooling centre and the office building of the local water board was also provided in the process. In addition, the experts from Fraunhofer FOKUS plan to use the network to test how reliable the technology is, what the life expectancy is likely to be, and how high the maintenance requirements will be, given the prevailing climatic conditions.

Analyses show that the inhabitants enjoy using the network for personal communication, the procurement of information, as well as for educational purposes. For the construction of this infrastructure, FOKUS NET4DC is working hand-in-hand with a firm from the region, which, amongst other things, runs a small Internet cafe.

Alongside this service, which is now being extended to other regions in Zambia, there are plans to connect small medical stations to the Internet in order to improve the provision of medical services.

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